BalletX Premieres Ochoa’s The Little Prince

by Lewis J Whittington | photo credit Vikki Sloviter

BalletX closes their home season with an extended run of choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince. The two-act ballet is scored to original music by Peter Salem. It is in many respects Ochoa’s most ambitious program yet, compared to her previous BalletX premieres Bonzi, Castrati, Bare, and Still@Life. The ballet had all the buzz of a signature BalletX production with a sold-out opening night performance at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia on July 10th.

The story of The Little Prince has captivated generations of children and adults who relate to its sense of adventure and themes of loneliness, survival and existential reality in a surreal world. It has been translated into 30 languages and still sells millions of copies a year. Ochoa and dance librettist Nancy Meckler have now translated it for the dance stage maintaining the integrity of the universal humanitarian messages of the book.

Saint-Exupéry was a poet, pioneering aviator, and a leader in the resistance against the Nazi occupation of France in WWII. His experience as a pilot flying over the Sahara inspired his fantasy story about what he learns from a prince from another star. In the book, the pilot narrates the story through illustrations that tell “more than words can” a rich source indeed for Ochoa’s visual choreographic template.

The ballet begins with a plane crashing as The Snake, symbolizing death, dances over his domain in the desert.  The pilot lives but with only eight days of water supply, so he must repair his plane to survive.   Meanwhile, The Little Prince appears in the desert transported on an asteroid from another star, but a brave explorer of knowledge on this journey to Earth.

The Little Prince and the pilot team up and dance out the fables from the book and tell their stories as they encounter each character, in vignettes that teach life lessons. Zachary Kapeluck is The Pilot who is catapulted through a wall of blocks, with the ensemble of dancers depicting the plane crash with busted parts of the plane and the pilot trying to rev up the propeller via pirouettes.  Meanwhile, Stanley Glover in a stunning black iridescent unitard, bowler hat, and cane, slinks around and through a matrix of cubes in Matt Saunders’ abstract set design.

Glover’s opening solo is virtuosic in its incredible sustained litheness and seductive command. It is one of the most hypnotic dance performances in memory. Caili Quan and Glover will both be dancing this role during the Wilma run.

Roderick Phifer is The Little Prince, in his mustard color shorties and silky green doublet. Phifer is equally captivating as the curious and adventurous prince from another star. A central duet with The Rose danced with smoldering allure by Francesca Forcella in a red ala Flamenco mini-dress. Phifer assured lifts sequences set up Forcella’s exquisite pointe work. Later, The Snake and The Prince have dance duel of wits that is just as powerful, Phifer and Glover, newer members of BalletX, bring impressive characterization and technical precision to these roles.

Richard Villaverde, back in the company after a season off, dances the Fox, who teases and instructs The Little Prince to show him how to tame his mind, body, and emotions. Villaverde’s leads a wily trio with Phifer and Kapeluck in a toe to toe number that is right out of a vintage 40s MGM musical.

Chloe Perkes is the Businessman who tries to collect the stars, to possess as a commodity in his attache case. Blake Krapels is the mad king who vaults around giving royal orders to his phantom subjects, as the Little Prince tries to make sense of it as the symbolism blared with relevance. And there are charming character mise-en-scenes danced by Skyler Lubin (The Narcissist), Caili Quan (The Navigator) and Andrea Yorita (The Lamplighter). Ochoa rightly doesn’t over choreography, perhaps keeping the narrative in focus for the young people in the audience.

Sauders’ set design is abstract minimalism with a shifting jumble of cubes reconfigured as rocks, cliffs or escape routes by the cast throughout the ballet. In tandem with Michael Korsch’s lighting, it never gets static over the two acts.

Ochoa likes to use dancer props that sometimes can become a distraction, but in The Little Prince has particular significance since they are directly rendered from Espury’s indelible illustrations in the book and are used sparingly to maximum effect. Those sketchy childlike images of planes, birds, and stars, transfer well to the ballet stage via associate set designer Petra Floyd and costumer Danielle Truss.

One would hope that there is an eventual recording of composer Peter Salem’s original music for this ballet. Salem performs the score at the back of the stage with an array of acoustic and electronic keyboard instruments.  From electric violin and harpsichord and banjo, world folk themes and synth drives give way to mystic sound-fields.

A particularly riveting sequence of what sounds like rainstick acoustic percussion occurs as the dancers stream on and off stage in unison jetes patterns as they wield their own sticks with fuchsia birds on the ends. They are manipulated into a frenzy of attacking birds that swarm over The Snake with such menace that it recoils to the caves. Would that life imitate art? One can only hope.

Ochoa doesn’t get bogged down with the Espury’s critique of the modern society as expressed through some of the characters and images.  Themes of friendship, fun and essential humanity in a barren, threatening place, is enough fertile creative dance ground for Ochoa and BalletX.

The Little Prince runs through July 21 at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia; 215-546-7824, balletx.org.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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